There’s a skill that David McCandless thinks we should all add to our CVs: data visualisation.
“The amount of data in financial services and other industries is going up exponentially,” says McCandless, a world-renowned data journalist and information designer who runs the organisation Information Is Beautiful. “Data is ubiquitous and powerful – you can either drown in it, or visualise it properly so it becomes a tool to help you work more effectively.”
McCandless believes that much of what we do both online and offline at work – from presentations to pitch books – contains data that should be brought to life visually.
“What you produce has to compete with everything else your audience has seen online that day,” says McCandless, speaking at a recent lecture series hosted by G-Research, a leading quantitative research and technology company focused on applying data science to financial markets. “We now speak a visual language. The internet is training us to expect information and design to come together. If you visit a badly designed website, you don’t trust the information in it.”
When “big abstract data” – the kind that are all too common in the finance sector – are visualised, they instantly become more understandable, he says. But McCandless isn’t advocating adding a quick pie chart to every piece of work you churn out. To make your data relevant to colleagues and clients, you need to give it “scale and contrast”.
A slide he shows during the G-Research lecture does exactly that. His ‘Billion Dollar-o-Gram’ demystifies various mind-boggling costs by presenting them together as to-scale boxes, coloured by categories such as earning, giving and fighting. You can better grasp the impact of the global financial crisis, for example, when you ‘see’ it displayed against other costs – money stashed in offshore tax havens appears larger in size, but the global healthcare budget looks a lot smaller.
The most important information often lies in the contrasts between pieces of data. “Data visualisation lets you see patterns, connections and relationships between numbers that would otherwise be scattered across multiple sources – numbers you’ve never seen together before,” McCandless tells the G-Research seminar at London’s Science Museum.
Harnessing and visualising data is also at the heart of what London-based G-Research – which is now hiring across the board, from software engineers to machine learning experts – does on a daily basis.
Its quantitative research arm, for example, uses rigorous scientific methodology, statistical analysis and pattern recognition to analyse a global data ecosystem, extracting insights to create forecasts of price movements in financial markets. It is now increasing investment in its data visualisation capabilities to enhance its arsenal of tools used to identify patterns in big, complex data sets.
McCandless employs a platform-based methodology when designing charts and graphs as vehicles to clarify enormous sets of information. “The data can become like a platform where you keep adding numbers and give it extra value. The key to data visualisation is interactivity – not just presenting it, but allowing people to interact with the front end.”
He describes data as “the new soil”, a material that you can “get your hands dirty with and dig through”. “And if you treat the soil in the right way, visualisation and infographics are like flowers that can bloom in it.”
There’s a much more common name for this soil, of course: big data. McCandless views this now-pervasive term as a “process of engagement”. It describes gathering, structuring and examining data, and then discovering something interesting which you can deliver back to your organisation.
Many companies don’t do big data well because they fall down at the discovery stage or don’t ask the right questions about it. “We can’t take a single data point and claim truth; we need to contextualise it to see its meaning,” says McCandless.
A simple example illustrates his point. The issue of which country spends the most on its military is best answered not by looking simplistically at overall budgets, but by examining costs as a percentage of each nation’s GDP. In proportion to its economy, the US ranks only in 19th place as a military spender, says McCandless.
He encourages the audience at the G-Research event to “see the world through data”. “Take the soil and grind it up and make a lens to see the world in a sharper, clearer way. Upgrade your data to make it more communicable.”
McCandless has done this many times himself by using “visual typography and visual icons”, but without compromising the data. His redesign of an archaic-looking blood test report, for example, presents the results in a graphical, colourful and much more comprehensible format. “Data visualisation is a portal into worlds that are otherwise inscrutable, especially scientific worlds. It opens up jargon and complexity,” he says.
Our brains, says McCandless, are programmed to respond well to visualisation. “We are pattern hunters and huge amount of neurons in our brains are dedicated to visual systems. When you start to visualise data, you speak in a more primordial language, a language that we learned early on in our lives that connects with us better than conceptual numbers and words.”